It was a moment that has been weeks, months, and for some, over a decade in the making.
This past weekend Timberwolves United, Chiles High School’s Special Olympics program sent 16 athletes (eight olympians and eight unified partners) down to Orlando to compete in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in three different sports: 7v7 soccer, track and field and bowling.
Chiles was well represented in Orlando, but it was its soccer team that ended up stealing the show. Playing under “Team Florida”, Chiles defeated Team Texas, 2-0, to win the gold medal in 7v7 soccer and take the top spot on the podium for the first time in program history.
Timberwolves United 2022 Special Olympics USA Games team
7v7 soccer (gold medalists): Athletes – Mohammad Almasri, Josef Marlow, Dillon Ramos, Henry Norvell, Quinterius Journey, Dontavius Potter. Unified partners – Sophia Harris, Margaret Harris, Ryan Sumner, Mason Townley, Tripp Ragens.
Track and field: Athletes – Corey Mclanahan, Jimmy White. Unified partners – Jimmy Maybry, Major Hartman.
Bowling: Unified partner – Macey Hartman
Coaches: Justin Kurlander (soccer), Trey Pettis (soccer), Chase Kurlander (soccer), Krist’n Hartman (Track and field).
Athletics and competing were a big part of the weekend. The Timberwolves did want to make an impact and come home with some hardware, and they did, but for head coach and program coordinated Justin Kurlander, it was more about the experience the kids were able to have.
“For me, being able to share experiences of going to Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom with them, and see how happy they were was fulfilling for me,” Kurlander said. “One of the kids pulled one of our coaches aside and told him that he was having the best time of his life. I can’t really put it into words with how proud I am of all of them.”
More than a club
Timberwolves United isn’t just an after-school program, it’s a year-round process that holds a very similar cycle to varsity sports. It was a year ago that Kirlander and his coaching staff found out that at least one of the Timberwolves United teams was going to advance to the games in Orlando.
The next month, paperwork and the logistical work began in figuring out how to bring the Timberwolves down to Central Florida. On the track and field, practices started up around spring break, working out weekly in preparation for competition. For soccer, the team practiced weekly as well, with Friday being a big day to focus on skills and such.
“There was a lot of practice,” Kurlander said. “It wasn’t something that just came easy. We definitely had a lot of things to get where we got to and find out what the players did best. We did awesomely all four games, obviously winning the gold, and I’m proud of that. ”
What’s the difference between a speical olympian and a unified partner?
Special Olympics Unified Sports combines people with (traditional Special Olympics athletes) and without intellectual disabilities (called Unified partners) on sports teams for training and competition; dramatically increasing inclusion in the community and using sports to help break down barriers that have historically kept people apart.
Source: Special Olympics Florida
Chiles opened up the tournament tying Team Michigan 1-1 but followed that with a narrow victory over Team Bahamas, 1-0. Its record took them to the championship game where they topped Texas for the gold.
“This year was a culmination of our kids’ hard work and just seeing them come together to beat teams and try their best,” assistant soccer coach Trey Pettis said. “It was awesome.”
Timberwolves United isn’t just a little sanctioned off group at the school, but a wildly popular club amongst the entire community. Kurlander and Pettis, who are both coaches on the football team, have expressed how invested the football players have been in Timberwolves United and wanting to get involved. A handful of Chiles football players are even part of the program.
Senior defensive tackle Josef Marlow is an athlete, and wide receiver Ryan Sumner, lineman Major Hartman and tight end Jimmy Mabry are all unified athletes.
“You’d think that the big, bad football boys wouldn’t be able to interact with kids who have intellectual disability, but they’re in my class all day and just having the time of their lives,” Kurlander said. “Anytime we have a game, the gym or field fills up because the support is huge and teachers even bring their kids.”
Over a decade in the making
Seeing the kids succeed and have a good time doing it is something that the coaching staff emphasized made the whole experience worthwhile. Kurlander has been involved in Special Olympics since he was 16 as a unified partner at Leon High School.
If a team did not automatically qualify for the games, their name had the chance to be picked out of a hat, and over 14 years of time in Special Olympics, Kurlander never saw his team qualify until now.
Getting to the USA Games was a moment Kurlander had been looking forward to for years. His brother, Chase Kurlander, who now lives out in California, was also heavily involved in Special Olympics and Justin invited him out to Orlando to coach with Chiles.
“This is something that we’ve wanted to do and experience together for 14 years,” Kurlander said.
This was a peak moment in the Timberwolves United program and they’re hoping that they can take it even further. Kurlander said that there is a possibility Team Florida can be drawn to participate in the 2023 Special Olympics World Games in Berlin in June. However, Kurlander and his team want to remember these moments for a lifetime.
After the game, Kurlander gave the game ball to one of his players who had scored both goals in the game. He told them not to play with the ball, but to buy a case for it and keep it safe. A little while later, Krulander was given a ball, which his entire team signed.
He’s still deciding where he wants to display it. In his classroom, where he teaches most of his team, or at home. Either way, the ball is going to be under safe keeping.
Jack Williams covers prep sports for Tallahassee Democrat. Contact him via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @jackgwilliams.